The Santero’s message said, simply “I’m going to be having some beers later and doing some witchcraft if you want to come over. All that stuff is too much for the phone.”
It must be said: his apartment is beautiful. I think that when most people think of Santeria (or Voodoo), they picture squalid little huts, dark apartments with blood on the wall, feathers on the floor, maybe a couple giant heaps of newspaper in the corner. Nothing could be further from the reality of the Santero’s crib.
The house is filled with art and artifacts, including personally constructed fetishes that represent each Orisha. No one fetish looks the same from house to house, but with a little study, one can tell one Orisha from another pretty easily. For example, Yemaya’s colors are blue and white, aquatic colors that represent the ocean — the source and symbol of her vast power.
So if you’re in a Santero’s house looking at a large blue-and white vessel of some sort with a woman’s face on the front, adorned with beads and candles: you’ve got Yemaya dead in your sights.
I can’t tell, exactly, but these objects, essentially found-object 3-D collages, are either gateways to the Orisha, or physical manifestations of the Orisha itself. I like that a lot. When I was in college, I was really into power figures from the Congo as well as the art of Voodoo and Santeria.
I like that practitioners of these religions actually, literally build their deities, that it takes sweat and love and a keen eye to make that gateway to God — or Gods. From a Christian perspective, man is created in God’s image. This does not so much mean that God has legs and underarm hair as it means that people are meant to create stuff the way that God created us.
And trust me, I’m using the term ‘created’ loosely here. To say that we were put here by some magical freaking thunderbolt and fossils are meant to test our faith is just ridiculous. I like believing in a higher power that created science, set the ball rolling and learned to love the results a lot more than I like thinking that we are the product of a deity that made dinosaur bones just to fuck with us.
Most of my beef with the Christianity I was raised under is aesthetic. My mom and grandparents, aunt and uncle and the minister at my childhood church are all generous, loving and productive people, and they take their faith seriously. It’s just that most of the worship services I’ve been to are so flat and passionless that when it’s over you’re not really sure that it happens.
I know that I like the Church of gospel and shouting, of clapping and barking in tongues, of building the things you worship with instead of doing a drive-by once a week and having some hard old cookies after. Life, death, love and happiness aren’t boring. Why does worshiping them have to be?
But before this high horse I’m in rides off into the sunset, I have to bring it back to the Santero’s apartment. We were sitting there, me, the Santero, and my friend Lola, having a few Budweisers and talking. Santeria music played in the background and this little dog Lola was babysitting just kind of wandered around being real cute. Then the Santero excused himself and stepped into the corner, lit a few candles and chanted, said some stuff in Yoruba and Spanish and threw four pieces of coconut shell on the floor.
He came back, saying “Eleggua says that he will talk to everyone in this house. That includes you (nodding to me). The oracle is open. Think of what you have to ask him, and let’s talk. You don’t have to start immediately, just form it in your mind before you ask. But ask tonight.”
The Santero explained that you can only ask Eleggua yes-or-no questions. No life or death stuff, just concrete, everyday things. The Santero helped shape my questions into ones that Eleggua could answer right there in the living room. This was a little weird to me. Not the whole talking to a voodoo god, but the fact that Eleggua himself was essentially standing in the corner right over by the front door, and here we were standing in the living room talking like he couldn’t hear us. Once I figured out my line of questioning, I stepped over to Eleggua.
This is what the Orisha looks like in that particular apartment:
It was right then, when I was standing in front of the Santero being anointed with four pieces of coconut shell that I got a little scared. The phrase “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” definitely ran through my head a million times, real, real fast. Was I about to step across a thin little line and condemn myself to hell?
Then I thought about it. Eleggua is, essentially, the one who is covered when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” and he’s ONLY that. He’s part of a bigger, more confusing whole, and this was a pretty good way to focus on one aspect of the entire universe. I like that about Santeria — it breaks a power that we can barely comprehend down into smaller chunks, powerful beings that have certain specialties. Kind of like the Avengers or the Justice League, to be completely flip about it. But it’s all the same thing, and the energy all goes the same place.
I can’t tell you what I asked. It would be disrespectful and turn everything pear-shaped. And I certainly can’t tell you what Lola and the Santero asked Eleggua a) because it would be even more disrespectful, and b) because it was done entirely in Spanish, a language I do not speak.
I can tell you this, though. After the Santero asked a question and threw the coconuts, his eyes widened along with Lola’s. Then he said “Okay then,” and marched across the room to dismantle Yemaya. “We’re going outside,” he said.
The main vessel that forms Yemaya contained shells, stones and a large amount of ocean water. Apparently, that ocean water had absorbed a lot of negative energy and needed to be poured out immediately. The Santero was pouring it onto the dead doves to eliminate the last vestiges of the broken curse and fully wash it away. So, we stood out in the road last Friday, around midnight, holding out hands over the dead doves while the Santero poured ocean water out of Yemaya, over our hands and onto those poor dead doves, chanting in Spanish. Here’s a photo:
At one point the Santero turned his head, mid-chant, shouting something in Spanish at a nearby van. Its occupants looked curious, to say the least. “What did he just shout” I asked. “He said ‘Go home, motherfuckers, I’m doing witchcraft’” Lola replied.
We went back inside. “Sit, talk to Eleggua,” the Santero said. Lola and I sat in front of the fetish. “Just pray,” she explained, “focus your thoughts and let them flow out of you. He’ll pick it up.”
The Santero lit a cigar and turned it backwards, carefully placing the ember into his mouth. He blew hard, blowing clouds of smoke all over Eleggua. It made perfect sense to me, and I slipped into my own mind, pushing out fear and doubt, letting it hang there. It was nice.
Then the Santero took a large swig of rum from a bottle by Eleggua and spat it all over him. He took another large swig and spat the rum on Lola, then gave me a good spraying, too.
“What was THAT about,” I whispered to Lola. “To get Eleggua tipsy,” she whispered behind a hand. “It make him talk to us more, tell us more stuff.”
She and the Santero resumed talking to Eleggua out loud, and again, I have no idea what they said. I got my answers, though, and I can honestly say that I feel pretty blessed.
The night ended, finally, and I went to bed. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not ready to convert or anything. But at a time when I needed answers, guidance, something to hang my soul on, I got it. It brought me closer to two great people and I had one of the deepest, most fulfilling experiences that I’ve ever had, and I feel calmer, more relaxed. That’s got to count for something.
I’m not done here, either. Eleggua was kind enough to talk to me, even though I’m an outsider. He took me into his house and treated me well. I’m not ungrateful for that, either, so I offered him a small gift in return. He accepted, understanding that it may take me a few days to get the gift together. Now I’ve got it sorted out.
So, sometime after work this week, I’m going to run a little errand, then drop by the Santero’s place and leave my offering to Eleggua.